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"The City of the Great King...He Is Known As Her Refuge" (Psalms 46-48) July 16-19

We come now to the next grouping of psalms, also composed by or for the sons of Korah. As The Nelson Study Bible states: "There is reason to believe that Ps. 46-48 form a trilogy that focuses on God's special love for Jerusalem....three great psalms of praise to God for his kingship and his love for the holy city.... [which] has led many scholars to speak of these psalms as 'Songs of Zion'" (notes on Psalms 46; 48). The Zondervan NIV Study Bible explains: "Following the cluster of psalms that introduce Book II of the Psalter (...Ps 42-45), the next thematically related cluster of psalms all express confidence in the security of God's people in the midst of a threatening world. Ps 46 and 48 focus on the security of Jerusalem, 'the city of {our} God' (46:4; 48:1), and Ps 47 on the worldwide reign of 'the great King' (47:2) whose royal city Jerusalem is (48:2)" (note on Psalms 46-48).

The superscription of Psalm 46 says this song is "for Alamoth" or "according to alamoth" (NIV). Note the occurrence of this word in 1 Chronicles 15:20, where a list of Levitical musicians is said to perform "with strings according to Alamoth." The word appears to mean "maidens" or "young women." Some have suggested that it is a musical notation for soprano voices or high-pitched flutes or pipes. Others see it as a reference to women assigned to play accompaniment on tambourines (Psalm 68:25).

The Zondervan NIV Study Bible suggests that in public worship, "the citizens of Jerusalem (or the Levitical choir in their stead) apparently sang the opening stanza (vv. 1-3) and the responses (vv. 7, 11) [i.e., the repeated refrain], while the Levitical leader of the liturgy probably sang the second and third stanzas (vv. 4-6, 8-10)" (note on Psalm 46).

Each stanza here ends with the Hebrew word Selah, which, as noted before, may indicate a musical interlude. "This term is derived from the verb salal, 'to lift up.' It occurs in 39 psalms and in the 'psalm of Habakkuk' (Hab. 3). No one is certain of the exact meaning of this word—that is, what is to be lifted up. Some think that Selah is an emphatic word, marking a point in the psalm for 'lifting up' one's thoughts to God. But most scholars think it is simply some form of musical notation, such as a marker of a musical interlude, a pause, or a change of key" (Nelson Study Bible, WordFocus on Psalm 39:5).

The opening stanza of Psalm 46 begins powerfully: "God is our refuge and strength" (verse 1). The Protestant Reformer Martin Luther appropriately translated these words in his famous hymn as "A mighty fortress is our God." It could be rephrased to say that God is "our impenetrable defense" (Nelson Study Bible, note no verse 1).

Three times the psalmist repeats the theme that God is with His people to help and defend them—in the opening words and in the repeated refrain (verses 1, 7, 11). Because of this extraordinary assurance, he confidently asserts, "We will not fear" (verse 2). The poet intensifies this confidence in the first stanza, maintaining that it will endure through the worst of circumstances: even if the earth gives way and the mountains tumble into the sea; even if the oceans surge and roar; even if tidal waves rattle the mountains (verses 2-3). It matters not—there is still no cause to fear.

The song's second stanza mentions a river that brings happiness to God's city and tabernacle (verse 4). "Jerusalem had no river, unlike Thebes (Na 3:8), Damascus (2Ki 5:12), Nineveh (Na 2:6, 8) or Babylon (137:1)—yet she had a 'river.' Here the 'river' of [Psalm] 36:8 [of God's pleasures flowing from Him as the fountain of life]...serves as a metaphor for the continual outpouring of the sustaining and refreshing blessings of God, which make the city of God like the Garden of Eden (see [46:] v. 5; Ge 2:10; Isa 33:21; 51:3; cf. also Eze 31:4-9)" (Zondervan, note on Psalm 46:4).

This would also seem to be prophetic. Later prophecies foretell an actual river that will eventually flow out of Jerusalem when Christ returns to rule the earth—the river also symbolizing the outpouring of God's Spirit and blessings (Ezekiel 47:1-12; Zechariah 14:8). Flowing from beneath the temple and dividing to east and west, the river's water will miraculously heal all it touches. Ever-bearing fruit trees with healing leaves will grow along its banks. Truly this river "will make glad the city of God." Jerusalem, then a peaceful city, will be the location of God's temple and the seat of Christ's rule on earth.

The great blessing of the city of God is that "God is in the midst of her" (Psalm 46:5). Today we have the same blessing. For spiritual Jerusalem or Zion is the Church of God, also referred to as the spiritual temple of God. Ephesians 2:20-22 explains in this context that the Church is "a dwelling place of God in the Spirit." And no power in heaven or earth can separate us from Him and His love for us (Romans 8:31-39).

The judgment on the nations at the end of the second stanza and through the third likely refers in part to God's past victories on behalf of His people. But the primary picture here is of Christ's return in power and glory to establish God's Kingdom, when He will defeat the physical and spiritual forces arrayed against Him and truly "make wars cease to the end of the earth" (Psalm 46:9).

In verse 10, God Himself is quoted within the words of the psalm, calling for stillness and to know that He is God. This message appears to be directed to God's enemies, telling them to give up their vain fight against Him. Yet it might relate to delivering a court judgment, telling all the world to be quiet and hear the sentence from the Judge (see Habakkuk 2:20; Zephaniah 1:7; Zechariah 2:13). Or it could perhaps be a word of encouragement to God's people, as when Moses told the Israelites at the Red Sea: "Do not be afraid. Stand still, and see the salvation of the LORD, which He will accomplish for you today.... The LORD will fight for you, and you shall hold your peace" (Exodus 14:13-14).

On the other hand, some interpret these words in Psalm 46:10 in conjunction with the call in verses 8-9 to come and behold God's works of destroying the enemy and bringing peace. That is, that after the victory is accomplished the people are to settle down and think about what has transpired, reaching the conclusion that God is God.

Whatever the specific intent here, it is clear that God will be exalted among all nations and His people will find an eternally secure future with Him. This psalm is a great comfort to all who trust in God for daily help and protection, for deliverance from hardship and trials and for ultimate salvation.

In theme, Psalm 47 follows right on from the previous psalm. Where Psalm 46 ended with God coming in the person of Jesus Christ to establish His authority and peace throughout the earth, Psalm 47 speaks of not only the subduing of the nations (verse 3) but also of the enthronement of God (again, Jesus Christ) as the Great King over the entire earth. While God is already the King of all creation, this psalm focuses on His future intervention to assume direct rule over the kingdoms of mankind (compare Revelation 11:15).

"This psalm belongs to a group of hymns to the Great King found elsewhere clustered in Ps 92-100. Here it serves to link Ps 46 and 48, identifying the God who reigns in Zion as 'the great king over all the earth' (v. 2; see v. 7; 48:2...)" (Zondervan, note on Psalm 47).

The clapping of hands and shout in verse 1 is to applaud Christ's victory as well as His coronation and enthronement (as when Joash was crowned king of Judah in 2 Kings 11:12). God having "gone up" (Hebrew 'alah) in Psalm 47:5 speaks in context of His ascending the throne—where we afterward find Him seated (verse 8). The words "greatly exalted" at the end of verse 9 are also translated from the word 'alah. Furthermore, in verse 5 we again see the shout of verse 1 as well as the sound of a trumpet or ram's horn. Such a trumpet blast was part of Solomon's coronation (see 1 Kings 1:32-39). It seems likely that trumpets and applause were regular features in the crowning of Davidic kings—as it will be in the enthronement of the ultimate King in David's lineage, Jesus Christ. In later Jewish worship, Psalm 47 became associated with the Feast of Trumpets—symbolic of the future time described here.

In verse 7, where the NKJV has "understanding," the Hebrew word is actually maskil, a term seen in the titles of other psalms (most recently other Korahite psalms, 42-45) that may designate an instructional psalm or, as the NKJV usually translates this, contemplation.

Verse 9 tells us that in His reign over the whole world, "the shields of the earth [will] belong to God." Nations will no longer strive to thwart God's power. They will lay down their armaments and take up implements of peace (Isaiah 2:4). It should be noted, however, that the Greek Septuagint translators instead of "shields" understood this as "kings"—perhaps because kings served as the protectors of their people (compare 89:18). In any case, all will submit to God's rule.

Psalm 48 locates the Great King's throne in Mount Zion—Jerusalem. It is referred to as God's "holy mountain" (verse 1), yet this should also be understood as figurative of God's Kingdom—a mountain being symbolic of a kingdom in prophecy (compare Daniel 2:35, 44-45; Isaiah 2:2-4).

Note the phrase in Psalm 48:2, "beautiful in elevation" or "beautiful in its loftiness" (NIV). Neither the original fortress of Zion, David's city, nor the Temple Mount area he later incorporated, formed the highest peak in the area. Today the Mount of Olives looks down over Jerusalem and the Temple Mount—as it did then. However, we should understand that the general area of Jerusalem was of higher elevation than the surrounding land of Judah and central Israel so that people in pilgrimage to the holy city would ascend to it.

Nevertheless, the main idea here concerns Jerusalem's spiritual exaltation. As the city of God's tabernacle and temple, and of the throne of God's anointed king over Israel and Judah, Jerusalem was the peak spiritual location on earth—and it will be on a much grander scale in the future. Even today, Jewish immigration to the Holy Land from anywhere in the world is referred to as aliyah—"ascent."

In the same vein, another focus of the passage is the physical city of Jerusalem as representative of the city of God now presently in heaven to later descend: "Mount Zion...the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem" (Hebrews 12:22; see Revelation 21-22). The reference to the "sides of the north" in verse 2 could signify the Temple Mount and royal palace being on the north side of David's city. Yet it may also signify the heavenly "mount of the congregation on the farthest sides of the north...above the heights of the clouds" (see Isaiah 14:13-14).

The verses here would also appear to portray on some level the spiritual Zion or Jerusalem of today—the Church of God, wherein God now dwells through His Spirit and which He greatly blesses and protects (compare Hebrews 12:22-23).

Yet the primary focus of Psalm 48 is the future time of Christ's reign over all nations as in the previous psalm, when Jerusalem, as the capital of God's Kingdom, will truly be "the joy of the whole earth" (verse 2). God in the person of Christ will literally dwell bodily in Jerusalem's palaces or citadels—governing the earth from there.

That this is the principal backdrop we discern from the message of the previous two psalms as well as the apparent time setting of Psalm 48:4-7. "This section describes from a different point of view the final battle [at Christ's return] referred to in Ps. 2; 110. Psalm 48 describes the approach and hasty retreat of the errant kings. The connection between this text and Ps. 2 is heightened by the use of an unusual Hebrew word for fear—a term meaning 'trembling' or 'quaking terror'—which is found in both places (2:11)" (Nelson Study Bible, note on 48:4-7). The imagery of God breaking ships of Tarshish in verse 7 is later found in Ezekiel 27, where the figure is meant to symbolize the destruction of ancient Tyre and its commercial system as well as, chiefly, the destruction of end-time Tyre, the international power bloc also known as Babylon—the parallel account of its destruction being found in Revelation 18 (see the Bible Reading Program comments on Ezekiel 27).

Beyond the wars and assaults, Jerusalem will be safe because God will be her refuge (Psalm 48:3)—repeating the message of Psalm 46. Coming to the splendor and magnificence of God's holy city, and the wonderful way of life proclaimed from there, visiting pilgrims will remark, "As we have heard, so we have seen..." (48:8). These words call to mind the reaction of the Queen of Sheba in visiting King Solomon: "It was a true report which I heard in my own land about your words and your wisdom. However I did not believe the words until I came and saw with my own eyes; and indeed the half was not told me. Your wisdom and prosperity exceed the fame of which I heard" (1 Kings 10:6-7). How much more will this be true of Jerusalem during the reign of the Great King, Jesus Christ.

Visitors are encouraged to walk about and enjoy the city's awesome beauty (Psalm 48:12-13). Parents will tell their children that the city, a bastion of righteousness and justice, exemplifies the Everlasting God (see verse 14). Just as God provides evidence that He is the Creator (Romans 1:18-20), in Jerusalem He provides evidence that He is the King. In its note on Psalm 48:9-11, The Expositor's Bible Commentary states that Jerusalem will be "a God-given visual aid, encouraging [visitors] to imagine and to reflect on the long history of God's involvement with Israel and of the evidences of his 'unfailing love' (hesed)."

Though verses 9-14 paint a vivid picture of the future, the words here also applied well to the experience of the Israelites in ancient times as they came to Jerusalem and its temple to worship. Just the same, these words can have immediacy for us today as we ponder being part of spiritual Zion, God's Church, and what that entails—and as we consider what God will yet do for us in the wonderful age to come.

Finally it should be pointed out that some have objected to the last words of this psalm, which in the NKJV state that God "will be our guide even to death." If the interpolated word "even" is left out, this would seem to make God "our guide to death"—as if to say He leads us to death. This may be why the Septuagint translators changed the final words to "forever," which is used earlier in the verse. However, the phrase "even to death" is certainly true—that God is with us and guides us through all our lives even to the point of death. Of course, God will ultimately guide us even beyond death. It may be, as some have argued, that "to death" is actually part of a postscript to this psalm or of a prescript to the next, a cue phrase meaning set to the tune of another song titled "Death"—perhaps an abbreviated form of "Death of the Son," mentioned in the superscription of Psalm 9.

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